Federal system is the best system for a multi-ethnic state

Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan.                                               

The landmark judgment of the three-bench Supreme Court in Chandrasoma v Senathiraja and Thurairajasingham has given a ruling that Federalism is not Separatism. This has at last released this constitutional system from the dark cloud of suspicion that the very word federal seemed to evoke among a section of the population in this country. It is, therefore, a most fortuitous and welcome decision. No less welcome is the visit of the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V Wigneswaran, to meet with the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters of the Buddhist clergy and the Maha Sangha Council in Kandy, to place before them the case for a Federal Constitution, and also bring to their attention the travails faced by the people of the war torn northern province. The meetings are the first steps taken by the Tamil leadership to reach out to the Maha Sangha, which institution commands the respect and reverence of the people, and among whom are many learned and cultured monks who are mindful of the long cultural and religious ties between the two communities, Sinhalese and Tamil speaking people, who have inhabited this island for over 2 millennia.

The campaign of selective interpretation and calumny against the federal system, by a section of politicians, as well as by a section of the media, resulting in whipping up the emotions of people, either through ignorance or malice, cannot be erased at a moment’s notice. It has been a long time in the making. A remark of the doyen of indigenous NGOs, Dr Ariyaratne comes to my mind. When some years back he was interviewed about his experiences of the non-violent Tamil Satyagraha during the 50s and 60s, and the federal party leader, Dr. Ariyaratne while praising Mr. Chelvanayakam, remarked, ‘But that word federal, even then we were being told it was the first step to separation.’ However, the recent events may hopefully lead to a change in the peoples’ thinking. It is now well known that it was not the Tamil leaders, but the Kandyan delegation to the Donoughmore Commission who first advocated federalism in the 1930s, as under this system of government the Kandyan provinces could have greater autonomy and power sharing. They felt that under a unitary system they would be dominated by the low country Sinhalese and the Jaffna Tamils who had educational advantages, and who would consequently take over the administration when the country became self governing. Subsequently, it was S. W. R. D Bandaranaike in the days of the State Council who advocated federalism as the best constitutional system for the country. This was in the early years of his political life, although he was not to pursue it.

The Tamil leadership did not see the advantages of a federal system, and it was only in 1949 that a small breakaway group of the Tamil Congress, namely S.J.V Chelvanayakam, Dr. E.M.V Naganathan and C. Vanniasingham espoused federalism, for the very same reasons articulated by the Kandyan delegation above as a means of autonomy within an undivided country and formed the Federal Party. The event which moved them to take this step was the legislation designed to take away the citizenship rights of Tamil plantation workers in the hill country, which the UNP Government under Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake was introducing in Parliament. It is argued that this legislation was directed against them not only because of their ethnic identity and more recent Indian origin, but more so because they constituted a big vote bank for the left parties, which in the early years of independence were a threat to the UNP which represented the right wing, as they had a considerable following in the country and charismatic leaders. It is not surprising that the Tamil Congress with a similar class background voted with the government, and subsequently joined the D.S Senanayake government, G.G Ponnambalam the leader of the party being accorded a Cabinet ministry.

Multi-ethnic state

So why did these few Tamil leaders espouse federalism? These gentlemen did not have any separatist intentions nor did they want to break up the country, but they felt that in the context of a multi-ethnic state such as Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, this would be the system of government which would be fair and just to all, by being more representative and ensuring a more equal distribution of resources. It would prevent an ethnic majority overriding a small ethnic or religious minority or pursuing discriminatory policies against it, and would enable power sharing between all communities. In a democracy, it is true the majority can form the government and govern, but it is a variable majority as people can change their party allegiance, whereas in a multi-ethnic state where there is a permanent ethnic majority it becomes majoritarian rule by a permanent majority and not democracy in the true sense of the word. Next door in the state of India these gentlemen saw an entire subcontinent made up of diverse linguistic, ethnic identities and religions held together by a federal constitution. Thus the proponents of federalism felt that for a multi-ethnic state the best constitution was a federal one.

The Tamil electorate at first rejected the Federal Party. At the 1952 election, they were roundly defeated. In fact, they were mocked and derided by the people and their attempts at holding public meetings to explain their position were broken up by unruly elements. But in 1956 came the Sinhala Only Act making Sinhala the only Official language. While this made way for the Sinhala speaking majority to be governed in their language, it excluded and alienated the Tamil speaking people. It was then that the Tamil speaking people, Tamils and Muslims, woke up to the dangers of majoritarian rule. The United National Party forsook them and the left parties were to follow. The minorities now saw themselves as no longer equal partners and co- citizens in a country that had thrown off colonial rule, but once again under the rule of another master. This laid the ground for the seeds of animosity between the communities, which was later to burgeon into an armed conflict.

The Federal Party unreservedly upheld the policy of non-violence and the Buddhist principle of Ahimsa followed by Mahatma Gandhi. They conducted Satyagrahas and peaceful protests against the discriminatory legislation. However, their peaceful protests were met with violence, which they bore without any attempt at retaliation. When the Federal party leaders S.J.V Chelvanayakam, Dr. Naganathan and Vanniasingham, together with the MPs of the party and other supporters, performed Satyagraha on the Galle face Green opposite the old Parliament to protest the imposition of the Act, they were attacked and beaten up by thugs and rowdies, and their supporters were beaten up and thrown into the Beira lake. Meanwhile, the police looked on from around the House of Parliament and no attempt was made by the Government to stop the mayhem.

Subsequently, the Federal party organized the historic march to Trincomalee and passed the resolution in favor of a federal constitution. In the 1961 civil disobedience campaign following upon the enforcement of the Sinhala only Act in the northern and eastern provinces, the FP members and thousands of party supporters, which included women and school children, performed Satyagraha in front of the Katcheris, (GA’s 0ffices) effectively stopping the administration. In the northern and eastern provinces the Muslims also participated, and the civil administration in both these provinces was brought to a standstill. But, instead of making any conciliatory moves and solving the issue in a democratic way by making Tamil also an Official language and the language of administration in the North and East, the Government of the day sent in the Police and Army. The peaceful protests were broken up with force and the Federal Party leaders and MPs were arrested and incarcerated in the Panagoda Army camp.

The FP leadership had also been making representations in Parliament, and had entered into negotiations with the SLFP and UNP governments for some measure of Language rights and administrative devolution of powers, as in the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam pact and the Dudley Senanayake – Chelvanayakam pact, but both pacts were broken by succeeding SLFP and UNP governments. This was because no sooner one Sinhala party attempted to bring about a negotiated settlement the other party tried to scuttle it so as not to allow the other to get the credit. At the same time there was also pressure exerted by those who considered themselves nationalist Sinhalese forces. This reaction was largely brought about by the mistaken notion that had been given to the Sinhala people that Federalism was separatism. This notion has at long last been displaced by the recent judgement in Chandrasoma v Senathiraja and Thurairajasinhgham.

No substance

However, even after the judgement I have come upon articles which continue to raise geopolitical fears that if more powers were devolved on the Tamil provinces they would then attach themselves to South India. This is a specious and mischievous argument which has no substance. A small Sri Lankan Tamil population which has had its own kingdom and maintained its identity, historically innately intertwined with its Sinhala speaking brethren for so many centuries, would hardly submerge itself in a sea of 70 million or more across the Palk Strait. It is noteworthy that in the above case the Supreme Court accepted the claim made by the Federal Party that their policy was that of a shared sovereignty and federal autonomy within a United and undivided Sri Lanka as affirmed in their public statements including election manifestos, and did not amount to advocacy of secession.

The Indo – Sri Lanka Peace Accord and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution brought some measure of devolution through the setting up of the Provincial Councils, not only for the North and East but for the whole island. It is now left to build on the positive features of the 13th Amendment while making the Provincials Councils to actually serve its constituency more, by providing them with the fiscal and administrative authorities that are not undermined by features such as the powers of the Governors over the finances and the provincial executive; which incidentally even the President does not exercise in respect of Parliament. In the new Constitution presently being formulated these matters can be worked out so that there could be greater power sharing between all communities. It is to be hoped that the parties that represent the Sinhala people will be able to live up to the aspiration of all communities and come together in an attempt to progressively resolve this issue, so that all communities can feel equal and contribute to take the country forward without any more conflict.

A federal system of government may take more time to finally evolve, as it presupposes that there is consensus between all the constituent parties, and that they are willing to work together, as we see in so many other states around the world. Federal constitutions are not uniform and there are those which have more unitary features and some less. For a Federal constitution to come into being all communities in Sri Lanka will have to jointly work out a system of federalism which suits this country, in the conviction that the federal system is the best system of government for a multi-ethnic state, in keeping with the vision of the founding fathers of the Federal Party. (The Island)

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